Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his criminal conviction for child sexual abuse will be heard in Australia on Wednesday. The cardinal was convicted in December, 2018, of five charges of sexual abuse of minors.
The appeal is set to be heard by a three-judge panel of the state of Victoria’s Supreme Court on 5-6 June.
Pell was convicted for acts of sexual abuse against two choristers in 1996, while he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
Following his conviction in the County Court of Victoria, Pell was sentenced in March to six years in prison, of which he must serve at least three years and eight months. Pell has remained in prison since that time.
Defense lawyers acting for Pell have appealed the decision on three separate grounds.
This first ground of appeal is that the unanimous decision of the jury could not have risen to the level of “beyond reasonable doubt” because of the unchallenged exculpatory evidence of 20 witnesses during the trial.
The second ground concerns the decision of the trial judge, Peter Kidd, to exclude a video presentation by defense lawyers which would, they maintain, have illustrated to the jury the implausibility of the victim’s narrative.
The third ground is a procedural appeal concerning Pell’s arraignment, which was not properly carried out in front of a jury, which the defense argue was a “fundamental irregularity.”
If the judges find in favor of the first ground, concerning the fundamental injustice of the jury’s verdict, Pell’s conviction would be overturned and he would be released from custody.
A successful appeal on either of the other two grounds could result in a second trial for Pell.
Should the court reject all three grounds and his conviction be allowed to stand, Pell’s legal team has confirmed that he will not be seeking to appeal the length of his prison sentence. There would also remain the possibility of a further appeal to the Australian High Court.
The cardinal’s conviction, which was initially subject to a court-ordered media blackout, followed the unanimous guilty verdict of the jury, the second to hear the case. Sources close to the case told CNA that an earlier trial, which concluded in the Autumn of 2018, resulted in a hung-jury returning a verdict of 10-2 in favor of Pell’s acquittal.
Since the gag order was lifted, legal experts and commentators have discussed the weight of evidence produced against Pell during the trial, noting that the conviction rests solely on the testimony of one of the victims.
Attention has also been drawn to the plausibility of Pell’s apparent crimes, in which he is supposed to have sexually abused two teenage boys simultaneously in the Melbourne cathedral sacristy after Mass, at a time when the space would have been both crowded with people and exposed to view.
The episode took place, according to the prosecution, after the 10:30 am Sunday Mass sometime between August and December 1996, shortly after Pell was installed as Melbourne’s archbishop. Defense lawyers established during the trial that Pell only celebrated this Mass twice during the time identified by prosecutors.
On at least one of the occasions, witnesses testified, Pell was in constant public view following Mass, and on both occasions the whole choir were involved in recording or practice sessions for a Christmas album immediately following Mass.
Since Pell’s conviction and sentence were announced, the Holy See has avoided making any public statement on the resolution of the case beyond noting Pell’s legal right to appeal.
“Out of this respect, we await the outcome of the appeals process, recalling that Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the last stage of appeal,” said a Vatican statement released in February.
During the course of his trial, Pell was barred from exercising public ministry or having contact with minors. These limitations were imposed by the local Church authorities in Australia and remain in force during Pell’s incarceration and the appeal process.